In mid-September of 2015, Hungarian authorities deployed large numbers of riot police, many in armored vehicles, to disperse crowds of refugees trying to cross the country’s border with Serbia.
As the BBC reported at the time, quoting a statement from the then U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Gutteres, “UNHCR was especially shocked and saddened to witness Syrian refugees, including families with children who have already suffered so much, being prevented from entering the EU with water cannons and tear gas.”
The crackdown followed the construction of a 4 meter (13.2 feet) high fence along the 109 mile (172 km) southern border, topped with razor wire and later reinforced with cameras and electric current. The country’s government also passed an emergency law that would have those who managed to get into Hungary, “charged with serious felonies and imprisoned until either their asylum claim is processed or until the criminal charges are resolved.”
The hard-line stance of Hungary’s Fidesz government, which, according to multiple sources, called the migrant wave an “invasion,” forced most of these displaced people to head west to Croatia in the hope of securing passage into northern Europe from that country.
While it’s true that events in the war torn nations of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan had brought more than 160,000 people to country’s border since the beginning of that year, with most making their way along the Balkan trail from Greece, few of those arriving intended to stay in Hungary, hoping to find refuge and perhaps a better life in the more welcoming nations of Germany or Sweden.
In the years since, the number passing through the country of 10 million has fallen significantly. This is in some part due to an almost $7.5 billion (USD) deal the 28 member nations of the EU made with Turkey, but it hasn’t stopped some politicians in Hungary, especially its Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who was just reelected on Sunday, April 8th in what can only be called a landslide, from using the issue of migration to spread panic for political gain.
A 2016 Gallup Poll of Eastern Europeans showed just how politically useful anti-migrant sentiment is for politicians in these countries. Hungary had the most citizens, 70%, who said that Muslim migration to their country should be zero. Although we might expect that the country’s far-right Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) would benefit most from this widespread xenophobia, Fidesz, traditionally a center right party, and its leader, have used the events of 2015 to tighten their grip on power by appeals to Hungarians’ sense of national identity.
This kind of nationalism ignores Hungary’s history, making dubious assumptions about ethnic purity. The country was once part of the cosmopolitan Hapsburg Empire, a multi-national kingdom that dissolved with the final triumph of the modern nation state at the end of the First World War. As explained by the BBC, at this time the country lost 72% of its territory and “was also deprived of her multicultural communities – the many Romanians, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats and Ruthernians who had previously lived side-by-side with Hungarians.”
Hungary, along with Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia have taken the position that they will not meet quotas mandated by the EU for the resettlement of displaced people despite their legal obligations as members of the community. Brussels is currently asking that Hungary take just 1,294 people, hardly enough to significantly change the country’s demographics (although the flight of skilled young people in search of better opportunities elsewhere in the EU may be a greater threat than a small number of refugees to Hungary’s future).
On the eve of the election, Orban spoke in an eerily familiar way to those who have been following American politics over the last two years, celebrating his government‘s work in building the fence to keep mainly Muslim refugees out of the country. He ended by saying, “Migration is like rust that slowly but surely would consume Hungary.”
A born politician
Although the above makes a reference to the current U.S. president, Orban is a much more competent, some might even say calculating, operator. Unlike his American counterpart, the Hungarian Prime Minister has been involved in his country’s civic life since at least the late 1980s, when he bravely demanded a Soviet withdrawal from Hungary against the advice of many of his contemporaries.
Considering his current stance on refugees, there is some irony in the fact that he and others now in his party had also called on Austria to open its border to Hungarians at that time, many of whom left when this miracle actually occurred and a large number of whom remain productive citizens of that country to this day.
Over his long political life, Orban has switched from liberalism to conservatism and even from atheism to an extremist Christianity with the ease of a born politician. Besides their seeming nativism, what he does have in common with the current U.S. President is a willingness to openly prey upon the prejudices of some voters rather than using the dog-whistles that have been a fundamental part of most conservative discourse for more than half a century.
Proof of Orban’s skill as a leader is easy enough to find, he has held an iron grip over his creation, the Fidesz Party (the Federation of Young Democrats, which, at that time didn’t allow anyone over 35 to join) since its formation in 1988, and has now won his third straight national election.
His party was originally liberal but after a terrible defeat in elections in 1994, it was transformed into a rightwing one, perhaps seeing more room there to grow its voter base, especially among the traditionally conservative rural population that the Prime Minister had grown up alongside.
He came back to power in 2010 after the world wide financial crisis for all intents and purposes wiped out the then governing Socialist Party, which still hasn’t recovered, placing third, after second place Jobbik, in last Sundays voting. In that earlier election he railed against foreign bankers. Soon after, probably sensing a change in the political winds, he began to focus more on the growing rightwing backlash against Muslims.
Orban’s government has also engaged in some historical revisionism regarding the country’s role in the 2nd World War, for example, building a monument in Budapest’s historically Jewish quarter depicting a German eagle attacking St. Gabriel, meant as a stand in for the innocent Hungarian people. The work is dedicated to “unnamed” victims of Germany during the 2nd World War rather than the Jews, Roma and leftists that were its primary victims.
As Fruzsina Magyar, a member of the country’s 50,000 member Jewish community, explained to the Jerusalem Post, “This statue is a symbol of the Hungarian government’s blatant disregard of history in the service of a nationalist agenda. It’s a disgrace. It tells you about the state of affairs in this country.”
Most recently, while extending his panicked critique of migration and holding to his party’s anti-Muslim bias, like many of Europe’s right-wing populists, he’s also staked his ground in opposition to the EU bureaucracy in Brussels.
Further, seemingly taking a leaf out of the Alex Jones’ book, Orban has picked out a favorite target of right wingers throughout the world, George Soros, who he has painted as a man obsessed with destroying Europe’s culture in league with the EU, using Muslims fleeing war, violence and poverty as a trojan horse, a subject we’ll return to.
Unsurprisingly, the harsh rhetoric targeting the refugees has created problems for Hungary’s 40,000 Muslims, a tiny community of people that mostly traveled to the country during the years when it was a satellite of the Soviet Union and chose to remain there. As is too often the case from here in Canada to Central Europe, women in hijabs, who are most visible as Muslims, have been targeted for verbal harassment and worse.
As reported by the English language National, based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in March, in one of the worst incidents reported to authorities, “attackers in 2016 tore off a woman’s hijab and shook her by the hair at a petrol station in the town of Obottyan about 25 miles northeast of Budapest”.
George Soros and the return of traditional anti-Semitism
The oddest thing about the Fidesz campaign was its use of the 87 year old financier George Soros as an all purpose villain, claiming that the earlier flood of refugees had been part of a plan to destabilize ‘Christian’ Europe. Posters, which were later taken down, featured his laughing face under the headline, “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh”.
Among the Fidesz party’s promises was the passage of a “Stop Soros” law to force foreign NGOs, especially those that advocate for refugees, register with the government and pay a 25% tax on foreign donations. It will also allow the government to place “restraining orders on activists that preclude them from approaching the EU’s external borders in Hungary”.
As the director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Stefania Kapronczay told the UK Independent in the article cited above, “I think what the ruling party promised during the campaign will now come to pass. This was a key promise to stop the Soros organizations, whatever that may mean. With a two thirds majority [in the country’s parliament] there can be no doubt they can and will do it.”
If he were a citizen of another country besides the U.S., George Soros would likely be called an ‘oligarch’. He is a man who helped cause the Asian currency crisis of 1994 and who once worked with a number of other ‘investors’ to make a run on the British pound. Like all billionaires, there is much to criticize in the way he accumulated his vast fortune.
In more recent years, Soros has become more famous for his philanthropy than these somewhat unethical business moves. While his partisan association with the centrists of the American Democratic Party gives him a pass from most of the mainstream media, it has at the same time made him a villain on the right.
While his Open Society Foundation, the second largest such charity in the United States after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has done some good work in that and other countries, including advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, it has also been accused of working alongside semi-official groups like the National Endowment for Democracy to fund opposition groups and even foment civil unrest in other countries, especially former parts of the Soviet Union.
While often rightly advocating for human rights, these NGOs also usually advocate for so-called ‘free market’, neoliberal policies that are not all that different from those proposed by the mainstream right.
While those on the left are accused of bias or even anti-Semitism for even the mildest criticism of the state of Israel, many of these same voices have been those pointing out that the historical anti-Semitism associated with the right, the one that sees the same old conspiracies hatched by ‘Jewish bankers’ to ‘control the world’, is rising in Europe and North America, helped along by Orban and ideological fellow travelers like Steve Bannon.
There is something ominous about those, including the son of Israel’s Prime Minister, who happily share memes of Soros as a puppet master controlling the hapless U.N. and EU, a trope that calls back to the fascist propaganda of an earlier era.
Some have gone so far as to claim that Soros was himself a Nazi collaborator, a libel that what we know of the octogenarian’s past, written about at length by his father and himself, disproves. Soros was actually saved by a Hungarian official by the last name of Baumbach, whose job was to inventory assets already seized from Hungarian Jews, including that of the then 14 year old Soros’ family.
Baumbach brought young George into his own home for a short time before the elder Soros was able to secure his travel to stay with his mother, who was herself living under an assumed name in a safer area some distance from Budapest. This may have saved the adolescent Soros from sharing the fate of the 400,000 Hungarian Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Baumbach’s job as a bureaucratic thief for the then fascist state of Hungary aside, it’s one of those rare stories from that awful era that offer some hope for the continued survival of basic human decency in our own difficult times. Thus, it is a one that politicians like Viktor Orban, and likely the current American president who often seems like a cheap version of him, have no use for. The Hungarian Prime Minister, like his less polished counterpart in the White House, prefers to speak in the language of comfortable myths to dealing with nuanced realities.